James Cook in Tahiti: a mile-stone in the history of tattooing

In the XVIII Century European countries made many expansive naval expeditions for geographical purposes. One of the most valued destination was the East-South Pacific Sea, and that is where the English Captain James Cook made three travels to examine the area.

On 3rd June 1769 the passage of Venus in front of the Sun was expected and it was an event that the powerful Britannic Navy could not lose in that century of scientific explorations. The best place to observe the astronomic event was Tahiti, so Captain James Cook was sent with a float. It was not planned, but this expedition would have become one of the most important event in the history of tattooing.

Cook arrived in Tahiti months before the date and the float spent the time in Tahiti describing it as a paradise on Earth: beautiful seaside, beautiful climate and… Beautiful people. Beautiful and colorful people, actually. Many members of the float described the men of the island covered with drawings of humans or animals – mostly birds and dogs – while the women usually had only a Z sign on every joint. Both men and women used to have other signs, too, such as concentric circles.

From that expedition Cook brought back in Europe many exciting tales but most important he spread the word “tattoo” itself in Europe.

In fact before Cook came back from Tahiti, there was not a real word to indicate the practice of tattooing. The word came from Polynesian “tau-tau”, an onomatopoeic word which refered to the technique used in Tahiti to make tattoos. It consisted in making a comb-shaped instrument pentrate under the skin: the sound which came from it sounded like “tau-tau” and Cook reported it as “tattaow”, and then “tattaowing”. Quickly, the word has been translated in all the eupean languages: tattoo, tatouage, tatuaggio, tatuaje and so on.

Cook’s navy was impressed by Tahitians and their attidute to get inked, while in Europe it still was a deplorable practice. Many sailors decided to get tattooed, too, despite the initial indecision. Eventually, they were seduced by tattoos and from that moment on tattooing started a slow path towards acceptance.